Council Approves Election Warrant. Considers New Rules For Appointments Of Residents To Council Appointed Boards

Photo: Blue Diamond Gallery (creative commons)

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, September 13, 2021

This meeting was held on Zoom and recorded. The recording can be viewed here.

Present
Councilors: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg (At large), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). Absent: Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz (District 1), Darcy DuMont (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Highlights:

  • Council approved the warrant for the November 2 election and reviewed the voting schedule
  • Council banned electioneering near polling sites and extended that ban to cover early voting dates
  • Placed on the agenda for a special council meeting on October 25 the final reports for redistricting and for the Community Safety Working Group
  • Discussed proposed new rules for appointments to committees of the Town Council
  • Unanimously approved appointment of six of seven members to the African Heritage Reparations Assembly
  • COVID-19 Update From Town Manager: case counts are up. Vaccination rate is higher than reported by state
  • Council adopted proclamations in honor of Puerto Rican Heritage Day and India and Pakistan Independence Day

November Town Election
Town Clerk Sue Audette presented the schedule for the fall town election. Early voting will take place in the first floor meeting room in Town Hall from Monday through Friday, October 25–29, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Thursday, October 28, early voting will be extended to 8 p.m. to accommodate those who need to come after work. In-person voting will be on November 2 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Find your voting location here

Mail-in ballots will also be available by request. The application for these no-excuse ballots is posted on the town clerk’s web page. Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) found the instructions for applying for a mail-in ballot confusing, especially how to sign the form electronically. Councilor Alisa Brewer (at large) said that people need a step-by-step process with the dates that applications are due and when applicants can expect to hear back. Completed mail-in ballots can be dropped off at the drop box at Town Hall or mailed. They must be received at Town Hall by the close of the polls on election day (8 p.m. on November 2). Audette said she would clarify the process on the website. She hoped to have the ballots available by October 12. Residents can apply for mail-in ballots up to 5 p.m. on October 27.

Town Election Warrant Approved
Audette presented the warrant for the November 2 election. As in the 2020 general election, precincts 2, 4, and 10 will vote at the high school. (Precinct 2 previously voted at the North Amherst firehouse, and precincts 4 and 10 were at the Bang’s Center. The firehouse is no longer available for voting and the Bang’s Center presented access problems for the precinct 10 site, and crowding in the large room where both precincts 4 and 5 were located). Precinct 5 will remain at the Bang’s Center, and all other precincts will remain in their traditional locations (for locations, see the above link). .

The question of whether voters want the town to borrow $35 million for renovation and expansion of the Jones Library is on the ballot. For actual wording of the question, see the above link.

All town offices are up for election. This includes 13 town councilors, five school committee members, six library trustees, three members of the Housing Authority, and the Elector of the Oliver Smith Will. The polls will be open from 7a.m. to 8 p.m. on election day.

Electioneering Banned Near Polling Sites
The council voted 10-0 to ban any posters, handbills, cards, pictures, or circulars intended to influence voters within 150 feet of the entrance to a polling place. Collecting signatures is also prohibited. Although this was always the case on election day, Audette and Town Manager Paul Bockelman recommended that the policy apply to early voting dates as well.

Councilor Andy Steinberg (at large) pointed out that some businesses within 150 feet of Town Hall have exhibited campaign posters in the past. Audette said she will have the police and ambassadors survey the area prior to the beginning of the early voting period.

Brewer said that this policy has always been in effect but was never enforced for early and absentee voting. She also noted that because mail-in ballots may be returned to Town Hall as soon as they are available in mid-October, the 150-foot rule should begin on that date.

Redistricting Plan To Be Presented At the October 18 Council Meeting
The redistricting committee is finalizing its work at redefining voting districts in town after the 2020 census. The report will be presented on October 18, but cannot be voted on at that meeting. Council President Lynn Griesemer said that, most likely, the council will need a special meeting on October 25 for the vote. She said that meeting could also serve as an opportunity for the Community Safety Working Group to present its final report.

Appointments Of Residents To Council-Appointed Committees
Councilor George Ryan (District 3), Chair of the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) presented the latest version of an appointment process for the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), and nonvoting members of the Finance Committee. The document attempts to standardize the appointment procedure.

When a vacancy occurs on any of these bodies, the appointing committee (GOL for Finance, Community Resources Committee [CRC] for the Planning Board and ZBA) will review all community activity forms (CAFs) submitted for those positions in the past two years. All interested candidates, including those up for reappointment, will be required to follow the same procedure, submitting a statement of interest and participating in a group interview. Interviews will consist of set questions distributed in advance with no follow-up questions. Applicants would need to be present at the interview to be considered.

Steinberg thought that the requirement to be present at the interview may cause the town to lose valuable applicants. He said that people may have many valid reasons why they cannot attend an interview at a given time. Ryan said that GOL was trying to create a level playing field and that the council “cannot deal with every misfortune in the world.” He added that the committee was “burnt out” from discussing this policy, and that he would accept suggestions but did not want to make any major changes.

Brewer noted that every attempt would be made to schedule interviews when all applicants can attend. Councilor Evan Ross (District 4) stated that this policy is “far more transparent” than that of Northampton. “Contrary to what some councilors have previously alleged, CAFs of only those candidates chosen are made public in Northampton, not the CAFs of everyone who applied,”he said. So the Amherst policy of making the statements of interest and interviews open to the public is more transparent, though this is not done for committees appointed by the town manager.

Members Chosen For The African Heritage Reparations Assembly
Town Manager Paul Bockelman submitted his choices to fill six of the seven spots on the African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA). This item was on the consent agenda, but Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) asked that it be removed. She wanted to know why only six of the seven seats were filled when there were more applicants. She also wanted to know why Bockelman was not personally present at the interviews.

Bockelman said the interviews were done in August when he was on vacation, but that he was actively involved with the selection. He relied on a committee of Barbara Love, Keisha Dennis, and Sid Ferreira to do the actual interviews, and he felt comfortable with their judgment. He held the one seat open in order to be able to balance the skills of committee members with the final appointee.

Hanneke said that she was concerned that one seat would be vacant on a committee that would be in existence for less than a year, especially when there was no indication that the remaining applicants were not qualified. She criticized the lack of transparency in the process.

Even though this committee is designed to compensate Amherst residents of African heritage for harms perpetuated over many years, Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) suggested that because members of the committee are all long-term Amherst residents, maybe a person of color who is new to town would be preferable for the last seat. 

Bockelman said he hopes to nominate a person to fill the final opening soon. The AHRA will decide when it will meet.

The council approved the six nominees unanimously (10-0).

Town Manager Gives COVID-19 Update
Bockelman noted that Amherst has had a dramatic increase in COVID cases in the past two weeks. As of this meeting, there were 302 active cases in town (now 321). Almost all were in the 18- to 24-year-old population, and none were hospitalized. In response, the Board of Health reinstituted a requirement that masks be worn indoors, except when people are seated and eating.

He said that one bar closed voluntarily this past weekend to avoid being a venue for spreading infection during the festivities around the football game. The town’s block party scheduled for September 17 was also canceled, both due to concern for infection spread and to the fact that it would be a hardship on restaurants to staff both the main dining room and a booth at the fair.

Although the state dashboard states that only 40% of Amherst residents are vaccinated, Bockelman said that this is because many of the student population were vaccinated in their hometowns. In fact, well over 90% of college students are vaccinated, as are 82% of 12 to 15-year-olds here. Board of Health member Steve George estimated that 76% of eligible Amherst residents are vaccinated.

UMass will be starting targeted testing of groups of 500 students. Testing for the public is available at the Campus Center, as are take-home tests that can be returned to various places on campus. Amherst College and Hampshire College are not seeing an increase in cases. They are requiring testing, even for vaccinated students.

Councilor Comments
District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis pointed to the loss of several people in important positions at Town Hall over the past year. She wondered if there is a pattern to their reasons for leaving. 

Bockelman said that all staff who plan to leave have exit interviews with the Human Resources manager, who is quite new herself. In the case of the two people of color who left in the past year, Clerk Shavena Martin and Human Resources Director Evelyn Rivera-Riffenburg, follow-up interviews were held a few months later as well as the exit interviews.. Bockelman said that one of the main complaints was lack of support for new managers, so the town is trying to develop a mentoring system for department heads. The personnel committee is developing materials on methods for easing stress.

Pam pointed out that there has been extensive parking on Lincoln Avenue since UMass opened and that residents are having difficulty exiting their driveways. Apparently all UMass parking lots are full and UMass parking permits have sold out, so students are parking on residential streets. The Town Services and Outreach Committee plans to discuss a policy for town-wide parking permits at its next meeting (September 30 at 6:30 p.m.).

DeAngelis also wondered about the proposed surveillance bylaw that was introduced over a year ago and that the town manager forwarded to K-P Law for a legal opinion several months ago. Bockelman said he would check on the status of that opinion.

Announcements
The primer and forum on the Master Plan will take place at 5:30 and 6 p.m. on September 27 prior to the regular council meeting.

The council passed the Proclamation for Puerto Rican Heritage Day on September 23, 2021. The Puerto Rican flag will fly on the town common from September 23 to 29.

Bahl-Milne sponsored the Proclamation for India and Pakistan 75th Independence Day. She said she wanted to convey to those residents of Indian and Pakistani descent that we want them in Amherst, and for people of Amherst to learn about the history of India and Pakistan and experience some cultural events. The event will take place at 4 p.m. on September 24 with the raising of the flags from both countries. The flags will fly until September 30.  

The meeting was adjourned at 8:45. The next Town Council meeting will be on September 27. At that meeting, the council will again have to determine whether their future meetings will be in-person, hybrid, or remote.

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